Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Tough Times for a Tough Man


Ted Stevens has this evening lost the U.S. Senate seat he has held for 40 years. His Senate Republican colleagues postponed a vote this morning about kicking him of his party’s caucus, correctly guessing that the voters would not re-elect him and thereby let them off the hook on a difficult decision. Jurors are speaking out and suggesting that his own testimony might have been the biggest factor in their conviction of him on seven felony counts last month.

It’s a very sour 85th birthday for a man who has given so much to the Alaskans he has served for four decades in the Senate and for years as a state legislator, federal prosecutor, and U.S. Department of Interior official before that.

“I haven’t had a night’s sleep for almost four months,” Stevens told reporters this morning. “I wouldn’t wish what I’ve been through on anyone, [even] my worst enemy.”

The Election Results: Begich Beats Stevens

The Anchorage Daily News and the Associated Press called the election late today for Democratic challenger Mark Begich, and the Anchorage Mayor has declared victory over Stevens. Begich is more than 3,700 votes ahead with only about 2,500 votes left to count.

That lead is more than a percentage point of the vote in low-population Alaska, and the margin exceeds the margin that would entitle Stevens to a state-funded recount. Although Stevens or the Alaska Republican Party could ask for a recount that they paid for, the Daily News has pointed out that Alaska’s move to mostly machine balloting has meant that recent recounts have only produced slight changes in the final tally.

Begich’s victory over Stevens represents a substantial turnaround in two weeks. The morning after Election Day, Stevens led Begich by about 4,000 votes with 99 percent of the precincts reporting, which means that there has been almost an 8,000-vote swing against the veteran Senator in the absentee, early, and questioned ballots that have been counted since then.

The news cheered Democrats around the country by giving them a 58-vote majority in the Senate, with a recount in Minnesota and a runoff election next month in Georgia that still might give the Democratic Party a filibuster-proof 60 votes.

Ted Stevens’ Legacy in Alaska and in Congress

The biggest change of all, however, is the stunning fall of Stevens. He was “Uncle Ted” on the Last Frontier, the man who brought hundreds of billions of federal dollars back to the state, so much that federal funding in Alaska was often called “Stevens money.” He has made major contributions to Alaska’s government, economy, and society in legislation ranging from the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to the bill providing for the construction of the Trans Alaska Pipeline. The Anchorage airport—by far the state’s largest—is named after him, and a civic group named him “Alaskan of the Century” in 2000. His vote-getting prowess was such that Stevens at least once won every precinct in the state.

Stevens’ longevity, hard work, and ability had made him a Capitol Hill powerhouse as well as an Alaska icon. He was once third in line for the Presidency, and while he served as Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman some saw him as the most powerful Member of Congress.

The Generational Split in Views of Stevens

The 46-year-old Begich said that his defeat of Stevens—38 years his senior—represented a generational shift in Alaska politics, and exit polling did show that Begich did much better among voters under 30.

Although there is less precise data about sentiments in the Senate, it did seem that there was something of a generational difference in attitudes towards their long-time colleague as well. It has been Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican who has been in the Senate only since 2005, who has been pressing the hardest for Stevens’ removal from the Republican caucus after his felony convictions. The Alaska Republican’s fiercest defender in the Senate, on the other hand, is his close friend Sen. Daniel Inouye, D.-Hawaii, a fellow World War II veteran who has served even longer in the Senate than Stevens.

What had to be galling to Stevens, though, was that those Senators who suggested that his convictions meant that he had to leave the body included long-time colleagues like Arizona’s John McCain and Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell. Observers reported that a number of Senators in both parties—including some veterans—were privately rooting for Alaska’s voters to keep Stevens from returning to the Senate so that they would not have to face difficult votes on expelling him from the Republican caucus or the Senate itself. One long-time Alaska politician who contemplated the situation said that he was reminded of the old saying “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

The Jurors’ Comments on the Trial: Ted Stevens Taking the Witness Stand Was a Big Mistake

If Stevens hadn’t been convicted eight days before the election, the polls and the closeness of the vote count both suggest that he would have won the election and remained in good standing among his Senate colleagues. Some of those jurors who convicted him have been talking to the Washington Post and the Associated Press over the last few days, and their comments have got to rub the salt in deeper.

There is a longer post to come on what those jurors are saying, but the nickel version is:

1. Ted Stevens hurt himself by testifying.

2. Catherine Stevens’ testimony did not help her husband’s cause.

3. Stevens’ statement to Bill Allen caught on an FBI tape that they might have to serve a little jail time was harmful to the defense.

Stevens keeps announcing that the judicial process needs to run its course, and that process would include a motion to overturn the verdict and then an appeal. With a status hearing on setting the date for the sentencing put off until February 25, the entire judicial process would run perhaps two years as his skilled and high-priced defense team tries to take the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Is There a Pardon in Ted Stevens’ Future?

There was a straw in the wind today that Stevens might have a shorter timeline, however. This morning, the press reported that he had denied that he would seek a presidential pardon from President Bush. Later in the day--but before it became clear that Stevens had lost his seat--Politico.com reported that Stevens had clarified that his response to the question of whether he would seek a pardon was “No comment” rather than “No.”

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